Style / February 2017

Back To The Future: Nigel Cabourn

Part-designer, part-archivist, Nigel Cabourn is truly someone whose passion for the rich history of menswear knows few equals.

Nigel Cabourn has always had a penchant for history. In fact, it worries him that the younger people he meets so often seem to have such a disregard for it. “An awful lot just happened in the 1950s in particular - the glory days of football and motor racing, Hillary climbing Everest,” he says. “And then if you’re interested in that period you can’t help but get sucked into World War Two, and then World War One... There was something special in the mood of that era. It’s a romantic time for me. Unfortunately I don’t get the feeling that it has the same resonance for younger people though, until I bang the drum with them. I used to get upset that people aren’t interested in history. But I’ve gotten over that now.”

Cabourn, after all, is the man who went to New Zealand just so he could visit an expert on George Mallory, the historic mountaineer who was inspiring a new collection. “You have to go to source to get a real understanding,” Cabourn stresses. “That trip was amazing. The Royal Geographical Society curator I was talking to about Mallory's clothes asked if I'd like to see them. I thought he was joking. But he returned with a big box full of Mallory's clothes wrapped in cellophane, complete with a blood-stained neckerchief. There I was holding them. And it was magical.”

Indeed, it comes as little surprise that Cabourn - a designer of something like cult status for workwear and military-inspired clothing - has one of the most enviable collections of vintage clothing, at 4000 pieces and growing. “I wear most of what I buy, although probably just the once,” he admits. “Most of what I do is research and collecting vintage clothing has always been a part of that, back when it was just called 'second hand' clothing. I buy whatever I find that strikes me as different - a detail here or there that can inform what I do now or maybe some years down the line.”

He spends big too: perhaps £30,000 a year on vintage; when he re-booted Lybro, the British workwear brand, he even spent £3000 on some cardboard advertising boards for the original company. “That seemed obscene at the time but led me where I wouldn't have otherwise gone,” he argues. “It fired the imagination.” Crucially, that is what it’s all about for Cabourn: looking back, in order to look forward. He doesn’t much like his clothing being characterised as ‘reproduction’, lumped in with the excellent if perhaps unimaginative Japanese makers of the same. For Cabourn, it’s about using modern, high-end fabric and construction methods to give new life to the best of 20th century history’s benchmark design.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.